Saturday, October 11, 2008

Struggling to End Domestic Violence &Sexual Assaults in the Military

Working against domestic violence has not traditionally been a program priority for Quaker House. We already have plenty to do with the GI Rights Hotline, the succession of peace events, and Truth In Recruiting.

But living in this military community, some other issues have forced their way onto our agenda. Torture is one. And domestic violence is another.

In the summer of 2002, the first year I was here, there were seven domestic murders and suicides in as many weeks. And as we surveyed the carnage, the reality that these were but the top of an iceberg of family trouble became impossible to ignore.

So we wrote a report on that experience, here:
And while sticking to our main priorities, we’ve still stayed mindful of the steady toll taken by this "war at home."

In early autumn 2007, Christine Horne (that's her, by the display in our dining room) read our 2002 report and called Quaker House. Her mother, Beryl Mitchell, had been murdered in 1974 by her Green Beret officer father, at Ft. Bragg, when Christine was a child.

Now, as part of her healing, she was coming to Fayetteville to pay a proper tribute to her mother, and the other victims like her. Could we help?

We did, and the resulting memorial drew extensive media and community response. (See the report in our fall Newsletter at: )
Unfortunately, the toll of family violence and sexual assault continues: four women soldiers have been murdered in North Carolina in the past nine months.
(They are, from top to bottom below: Maria Lauterbach, murdered in December 2007 at Camp lejeune; Megan Touma, killed in Fayetteville in June 2008; Holley Wimunc, an Army nurse murdered in Fayetteville in July; and Christina Smith, stabbed to death in Fayetteville in October 2008. All four were soldiers, and in all cases, male soldiers have been charged with the crimes.)
And last month, our phone rang again. This time, it was from retired Army Col. Ann Wright. We knew Ann from her participation in our peace rally in 2007.
But Ann was not calling about an antiwar action. She was concerned about the murders of female soldiers. Could we help with a public action about that?
Of course. The outcome was a vigil, luncheon discussion, and wreath-laying memorial, on October 8, 2008. Again the press came out in force. The Fayetteville Observer hit the right note about the vigil, held outside one of the main gates to Fort Bragg:

The crowd hovering outside one of Fort Bragg’s gates Wednesday was a protest of sorts.

But it was not the anti-war kind that Fayetteville sometimes sees.

This was a protest with purple ribbons and signs about soldiers killed by their husbands or boyfriends, not by insurgents.

In a way, it was a protest against the military. But not against the people who serve. Against the military culture that, the protesters think, makes it difficult for a woman in the military to tell her commanders that her soldier husband is threatening her. Against the military bureaucracy that, the protesters think, hides sexual assault complaints and brushes victims to the side.

"I am here to say that our military must address this," said retired Army Col. Ann Wright, who served 29 years in the Army and now speaks around the country about violence against women in the service.

The response of an army press spokesman was dismissive:

Fort Bragg officials say the military’s programs to prevent sexual assault and domestic abuse work.

They do? Tell that to the families of the four women who won’t be coming home.

"Nothing could be further from the truth that we don’t attempt to be proactive in reducing domestic violence," said Tom McCollum, a Fort Bragg spokesman.

McCollum said when soldiers and families come to Fort Bragg they are told about the different places on post they can get counseling. He said soldiers preparing to deploy are briefed about stress and domestic violence as part of the things they receive. Those same soldiers are briefed again before they return to the U.S. and again after they come home.

"They can go to our chaplains, Womack Army hospital and to the Army Community Services," McCollum said. "We are sometimes baffled — why would someone do that and especially with all the help that is available? A divorce is so much easier."

Unfortunately, this statement mainly rebutted assertions that the vigilers hadn’t made. Ann Wright laid out the concerns in an OpEd column for the same newspaper on October 3rd:

In 2002, four Army spouses were murdered here by their military husbands after they returned from Afghanistan. But Fort Bragg, even aside from these infamous cases, has had a "disproportionately high number of domestic homicides, the highest in the country", according to "Murder in the Military," a July 20, 2008 article in this newspaper.

The sad roster of such victims stretches back over the decades. Thus we’ll also be laying a wreath at the grave of Beryl Mitchell, murdered here in 1974 by her Special Forces officer husband.
Rape is a parallel plague. Veterans Administration statistics reveal that one in three women servicemembers are raped or sexually assaulted while in the military. Further, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff of Personnel recently told Congress that of the reported rapes in the Army in 2007, ten percent were reported by male victims.

Nor are wives the only victims. In 2004 the North Carolina Child Advocacy Center issued a shocking report, "Reducing Collateral Damage on the Home Front," which showed that in a sixteen year period, the rate of fatal violence against children was twice as high in the counties around Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune as in the rest of the state.

In short, however much the Army is doing, it isn’t enough.

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